The Perfect Wife Page 2

The face that stares back at you above the collar of a blue hospital gown is your face. It’s puffy and bruised-looking, and there’s a faint line under your chin, like the strap of those hats soldiers wear on ceremonial parades. But it’s still unarguably you. Not something artificial.

“I don’t believe you,” you say. You feel weirdly calm, but the conviction sweeps over you that nothing he’s saying can possibly be true, that your husband—your brilliant, adoring, but undeniably obsessive husband—has gone stark raving mad. He’s always worked too hard, driven himself right to the edge. Now, finally, he’s flipped.

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” he says gently. “But I’m going to prove it to you. Look.”

He reaches behind your head and fiddles with your hair. There’s a sucking sound, a strange, cold sensation, and then your skin, your face—your face—is peeling away like a wet suit, revealing the hard white plastic skull underneath.


You can’t cry, you discover. However great your horror, you can’t shed actual tears. It’s something they’re still working on, Tim says.

Instead you stare at yourself, speechless, at the hideous thing you’ve become. You’re a crash-test dummy, a store-window mannequin. A bundle of cables dangles behind your head like some grotesque ponytail.

He stretches the rubber back over your face, and you’re you again. But the memory of that horrible blank plastic is seared into your mind.

If you even have a mind. As opposed to a neural net, or whatever he called it.

In the mirror your mouth gapes silently. You can feel tiny motors under your skin whirring and stretching, pulling your expression into a rictus of dismay. And now that you look more closely, you realize this face is only an approximation of yours, slightly out of focus, as if a photograph of you has been printed onto the exact shape of your head.

“Let’s go home,” Tim says. “You’ll feel better there.”

Home. Where’s home? You can’t remember. Then—clunk—amemory drops into place. Dolores Street, in central San Francisco.

“I never moved,” he adds. “I wanted to stay where you’d been. Where we’d been so happy.”

You nod numbly. You feel as if you ought to thank him. But you can’t. You’re trapped in a nightmare, immobile with shock.

He takes your arm and guides you from the room. The nurse—if she was a nurse—is nowhere to be seen. As you walk with painful slowness down the corridor you glimpse other rooms, other patients in blue hospital gowns like yours. An old lady gazes at you with milky eyes. A child, a little girl with long brown ringlets, turns her head to watch you pass. Something about the movement—just a little farther than it should be, like an owl’s—makes you wonder. And then the next room contains, not a person, but a dog, a boxer, watching you exactly the same way—

“They’re all like me,” you realize. “All…” What was his word? “Cobots.”

“They’re cobots, yes. But not like you. You’re unique, even here.” He glances around a little furtively, his hand on your elbow increasing its pressure, urging you to go faster. You sense there’s something he’s still not telling you; that he isn’t supposed to be whisking you away like this.

“Is this a hospital?”

“No. It’s where I work. My company.” His other hand pushes insistently in the small of your back. “Come on. I’ve got a car waiting.”

You can’t walk any faster—it’s as if you’re on stilts, your knees refusing to bend. But even as you think that—your knees—it gets a little easier.

“Tim!” a voice behind you calls urgently. “Tim, wait up.”

Relieved at the chance to pause, you turn to look. A man about Tim’s age, but more thickset, with long, straggly hair, is hurrying after you.

“Not now, Mike,” Tim says warningly.

The man stops. “You’re taking her away? Already? Is that a good idea?”

“She’ll be happier at home.”

The man’s eyes travel over you anxiously. His security pass, dangling around his neck, says DR. MIKE AUSTIN. “She should be checked out by my psych team, at least.”

“She’s fine,” Tim says firmly. He opens a door into what looks like a large open-plan office area. About forty people are sitting at long communal desks. No one is pretending to work. They’re all staring at you. One, a young Asian-looking woman, raises her hands and, tentatively, applauds. Tim glares at her and she quickly looks down at her screen.

He guides you straight through the office toward a small reception lobby. On the wall behind the front desk is a colorful street-art mural framing the words IDEALISM IS SIMPLY LONG-RANGE REALISM! Something about it seems familiar. You want to stop, to look more closely, but Tim is urging you on.

Outside, it’s even brighter. You gasp and shield your eyes as he steers you past a polished steel sign saying SCOTT ROBOTICS, the initial S and R like two upended infinity symbols, toward a waiting Prius. “The city,” Tim tells the driver, while you struggle to fold your unresponsive limbs into the back. “Dolores Street.”

Once you’re both in and the Prius is moving off, his hand reaches for yours. “I’ve waited so long for this day, Abbie. I’m so happy you’re finally here. That we’re together again, at last.”

You catch the driver looking curiously at you in his rearview mirror. As you leave the parking lot he glances up at the sign, then back at you again, and something dawns in his expression.

Understanding. And something else as well. Disgust.


The very first we knew of Tim’s plan to hire an artist-in-residence was when we heard him talking to Mike about it. That was typical of Tim. He might exhort all of us to work more collaboratively and openly, but the same directive blatantly didn’t apply to him. Mike was one of the few people he would sometimes actually listen to, on account of them starting Scott Robotics together in Mike’s garage, almost a decade ago. But still: It might have been Mike’s garage, but it was Tim’s name on the company. That told you pretty much all you needed to know about their relationship.

So, regarding the artist-in-residence proposal, it wasn’t as if Tim was discussing it with Mike so much as telling him. But it was also typical of Tim that his announcement had to be prefaced by a loud, passionate tirade about what was so stupid and wrong and screwed up about the way we currently did things, even though we were only doing them the way he’d argued equally passionately for the last time he made us change everything.

“We need to wake the fuck up, Mike,” he was saying in his rasping British accent. “We need to get more creative. Look at these people”—and here his gesture took in all of us, working away in Scott Robotics’ open-plan HQ—“and tell me they’re thinking outside the paradigm. They need to be stimulated. They need to be excited. And we’re not going to do that with free bagels and Pilates.”

Tim once told a reporter that having an idea about what the future would look like and then waiting for it to happen was like being permanently stuck in traffic. He’s not a patient man. But he is the closest thing to a genius most of us have ever worked with.

“Which is why we’re hiring an artist,” he added. “Her name’s Abbie Cullen. She’s smart—she works with tech. She excites me. We’re giving her six months.”

“To do what?” Mike asked.

“Whatever the hell she likes. That’s the whole point. She’s an artist. Not yet another time-serving worker-drone.”

If any of us were offended by that description—among our number we counted quite a few millionaires, veterans of some of Silicon Valley’s most notable start-ups—none of us showed it, although we were already wondering how long the free bagels would continue now.

Mike nodded. “Great. Let’s get her in.”

We waited for the cry of Listen up, people! that usually prefaced Tim’s announcements. But none came. He’d already gone back into his glass-walled cubicle.

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